"We genuinely believed it was a record about being fans of rock-and-roll. Maybe we didn't understand how successful we were and that it looked like we were hanging out with these guys so, by association, that we were one of the greats."
-- Bono, on Rattle and Hum
Like a Song: Mother -- 'I Will Follow' / 'Mofo' / 'Iris'
August 10, 2016
[Ed. note: This is the 99th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
Looking back on U2’s career of almost 40 years, we can find some key themes in their music. I believe one theme was essential when the band formed in 1976, and it has been constant throughout their lives. “Mother” has been very present in the lyrics over the decades. For that reason, I chose three songs for this article: “I Will Follow,” “Mofo” and “Iris.”
In September 1974, Bono’s mother had a brain hemorrhage during her father’s funeral. Bono was devastated; he was only 14 when she died. Feeling hopeless, he found comfort in religion, music and girls. Two years later, he fell in love with Ali and joined U2. “Nothing much has changed since then,” Bono said in U2 By U2. “I’m still with Ali, and I’m still with the band.”
In the same year, Larry Mullen Jr. lost his mother, too. This loss defined his personality and pushed him toward the band, which also happened with Bono.
Originally, these three songs were written to Bono’s mother, but I think they could be for Larry’s mother as well because both sons experienced the same pain. During the Innocence + Experience tour, before “Iris” was played, Bono said, “It’s for all mothers. It could be Gwenda. It could be Maureen. It could be Jo.”
I was looking at myself
A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by the hand
If he stops to think, he starts to cry
“I Will Follow” is from U2’s first album, Boy, which is autobiographical. The band members were very young and the songs reflect the doubts, fears and emotional confusion that are pretty normal at that time. It’s clear in the verses above that Bono was feeling lost; he was trying to discover who he was, what kind of person and man he would be.
Our parents are examples, our guides. When a child loses his mother and can’t find much support from his father, home turns into a strange and dark place. That’s what happened with Bono; he spent a lot of time in his friends’ houses looking for love and a way he could follow. As a boy he was trying to figure it out how to overcome this big loss.
Lookin’ for to save my, save my soul
Lookin’ in the places where no flowers grow
Lookin’ for to fill that God-shaped hole
Mother, mother-suckin’ rock and roll
“Mofo” is from Pop, released in 1997. Bono was in his middle 30s at that time, but as you can see in the above lyrics, he was still hurt. He questions himself, asking for the father of his little girls. At this moment, he’s a dad and aware of the importance of parenthood. On the other hand, he is looking for something to save his soul and soothe his wounded heart.
Mother, am I still your son?
You know I've waited for so long
To hear you say so
Mother, you left and made me someone.
Now I'm still a child, but no one tells me no.
Rock ’n' roll brought Bono fame and success, but all those things were not enough to fill the void left by his mother’s death. Yet even though he still struggled with the loss, he was already aware that his mother changed him, and because of that he’s “someone”: son, brother, husband, father, rock star. All of this in one man who seeks his mom’s guidance.
In my heart
Is so much a part of who I am
Once we are born, we begin to forget
The very reason we came
The third song, “Iris,” is from Songs Of Innocence, a very personal album. A middle-aged Bono takes us back to U2’s roots. Of course, family and friends are part of this background. The tribute couldn’t be more explicit because he named the song after his mother.
In “Iris,” Bono reflects on how his mother’s death interfered with the man he has become. He’s a mature person who felt wrecked when was young, and is still carrying all that sorrow in his spirit. He doesn’t seem to have as many doubts now; he knows who he is. But at the same time, he’s aware of how much all this suffering influenced his life.
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Like I’m someone that you might know
The darkness just lets us see who we are
I’ve got your life inside of me
Iris playing on the strand
She buries the boy beneath the sand,
Iris says that I will be the death of her
It was not me
During dark times or when you’re depressed, you think about yourself and what you might be doing wrong. Bono used this opportunity to discover who he really is. Despite being aware that he misses Iris, he still calls for her affection.
Bono said he doesn’t have many memories of his childhood, but remembers he wasn’t an easy child. His bad behavior was a huge concern for his family. He felt guilty about being a problematic child who could harm his own mother. “It was not me,” he explains with a broken heart.
“Tomorrow” and “Lemon” were also dedicated to Iris. Over the decades, we see that Bono tried to heal the scars with his art. Obviously, he is U2’s main songwriter in the band, and Larry is much more private; that’s why Bono’s mother is the major character. But in the end, I truly believe they share the same feelings.
From “I Will Follow,” to “Mofo” to “Iris,” there is an evolution. First, a desolate boy who doesn’t know who he is and which way to go. Then, an adult who realizes the effects of his mother’s absence. And now he’s completely aware of what happened, and the kind of man he became. It’s redemption; music saved his life.
Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself
(c) @U2/Bottini, 2016